Category: writing process


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1872 Lighthouse on the Hudson River (photo taken August 2017)

Although A LIGHT IN THE STORM was inspired by the very real lighthouse keeper, Ida Lewis, the book is a work of fiction. I spent over a year researching the Civil War, the particular complexities of living along the Mason-Dixon Line, and the duties and responsibilities of lighthouse keepers during the 1800s. Many of the details in my book are drawn from newspapers of the period…perhaps that’s what gives A LIGHT IN THE STORM its air of reality.

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When I write in free verse I usually avoid formal constraints. Though I do love occasional internal rhyme, I try not to overdo it as too much makes the work seem self-conscious and contrived. Instead, I arrange the  verse to suggest the rhythm and cadence of the character’s native language or accent. I think of my novels in verse more as theater than as one long poem.

A writer must carefully balance foreshadowing. Too much and it feels manipulative. Too little and the reader feels disoriented. Either way the reader is pulled out of the book and a writer never wants that to happen.
The foreshadowing is there…perhaps when reading the book again someday you will find what on first reading eluded you. 
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While researching, I come across multiple articles on certain events. I also peruse numerous advertisements for everything from baby bonnets to basketball games. I make an effort to fold these bits and pieces from the period into my narrative in a way that reflects how often I came upon them in my research. So yes, the events in the book, from the accidental fire to the curiosity about the Dionne quintuplets received multiple mentions and attention in the media of the early 1930s.

road-trip-with-kate-to-arizona-2016lc-287There are no guarantees in life. If a formula existed for becoming a best-selling author  the market would be flooded with best-sellers to the point that “best-seller” would cease to have the meaning we presently give it.  I’m certain there are successful writers who followed a path to fame and fortune, who sought publicity first, placing the goal of being a “best-seller” above the deeper goal of communicating profoundly with other members of the human race, and I’ll bet some of them are quite satisfied with their choices, but it would not be my advice to you to follow that path. Perhaps a better goal would be to write books  on subjects and themes you care deeply about. Dig down into your material, dig  down into your understanding of yourself and of the world. Understand that there are mountains, beyond mountains, beyond mountains, that the superficial has its place but may not be as enduring, or as gratifying as the longer view. Write what’s in your heart, write what’s on your mind, and if it becomes a best-seller, you have that, too, to celebrate at the end of the process.

Aleutian Sparrow

Aleutian Sparrow

With joy, in 2000 I accepted an invitation to travel to Southeast Alaska and speak to enthusiastic students, librarians, and educators. The students in particular hoped I might write a book about Alaska but I shook my head no. I could never write with the authenticity of an Alaskan resident. However, while in Ketchikan, I visited Parnassus Books where I purchased  more volumes about Alaska than I could carry. Most of the books were shipped back to my home in Vermont. But I kept a couple out to read on the plane. That is when I first learned of the Aleuts and their story. To my knowledge, no one had told their story to young readers and I feared no one ever would. This was such a risky project. How could I ever do the tale justice?  I was very fortunate to have the assistance of several people with first hand experience who gave me honest criticism and helped me correct my misunderstandings and mistakes.

I fear the emotional, mental, and physical trauma of being relocated, of living in a refugee camp, has not changed significantly since 1942.

Stowaway

Stowaway

Our local library, Brooks Memorial, regularly brings lecturers in to speak on a wide range of topics. James Cook scholar David Bisno spoke in the meeting room one evening in late 1998 or so. On a table at the front of the room piles of primary source material beckoned. For me, primary sources are like sweets, I can’t get enough of them. When I started leafing through Beaglehole’s definitive edition of Captain Cook’s journal I felt chills of delight. It took me less than 24 hours to request a copy of this two book collection through Inter Library Loan. Once the books arrived I poured over them…and there I discovered Nicholas Young. At lunch a few days later, I shared with my husband much of what I’d learned so far about the Endeavour’s journey. As I related stories about young Nick, it suddenly occurred to me that I had discovered a perfect narrator. Writing this book was consuming in a way no other had been. I rarely left my desk…just as the men rarely got off  their ship. I slept with my head on my desk, I ate at my desk. I stopped calling (and taking calls) from family and friends. What a journey. But I’d take it again in a heartbeat. It was an extraordinary, singular experience.

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I love documentaries. One evening, while preparing for bed, I caught the last portion of CHILDREN OF CHERNOBYL, a haunting retelling of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. Glued to the screen, I watched until the end and then searched for when the show might be rebroadcast in full. Not only did I watch it repeatedly, but I recorded the audio and listened to that over and over. I’d become obsessed. Often, when I fixate on a topic, the only way to move forward is to go as deeply as possible into the material and write my way out of it. That’s exactly what I did in this instance, researching nuclear power plants, the science behind them, the people who run them. I  also researched life on a sheep farm once I’d settled on that as my setting. This was perhaps the most challenging two years for my family as I wrote my way out of this obsession. We were all grateful when the manuscript returned to my editor for the last time.

Wish on a Unicorn

Wish on a Unicorn

While running a quick errand with my young daughter one morning, I drove past an abandoned car filled with all sorts of things: from pots and pans to pillows, blankets and books. On the roof of that forsaken car (it no longer even had tires on its metal rims) was a two foot tall stuffed unicorn, growing more and more dejected looking by the minute under a steady drizzle. My daughter had not seen the unicorn when we passed it the first time but I knew she would see it on our return trip. I prayed the unicorn would not still be there because I knew if my daughter saw it she would want to bring it home and I didn’t think that was right. As we approached the little parking lot where I’d first seen the stuffed unicorn, I stared in wonder. The car, the pots, the pans, the pillows, the books, and the unicorn had all vanished. It couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes. How could a car with no wheels vanish in such a short period of time? It seemed impossible to me. It seemed like a miracle. Upon arriving home I wrote a short story inspired by the experience. In time the story became the novel you know as WISH ON A UNICORN.

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There are multi-year college level courses to answer this question. But I’ll try to give you a brief answer. 1. First you need a good idea and some ability with language. 2. Then you need to dedicate time each day to writing and revising your idea until slowly it evolves into a marketable manuscript. 3. Finally you need a publisher who believes in your book as much as you do. The publisher does the work of actually publishing your book for you and distributing it. It’s hard work, it’s collaborative work, it’s joyous work, it’s heartbreaking work; it’s exhausting, consuming, and the odds against making any kind of profit are unimaginably high, but if you have a bit of grit, a love of language, a familiarity with story shapes, a story to tell, and a fair measure of luck, you might be fortunate enough to publish a book some day. Good luck!